More than 360 million people were eligible to vote in the four-day election, although turnout in EU polls is historically low

Brussels (Belgium) (AFP) - Tens of millions of voters from Vilnius to Madrid were casting ballots Sunday on the final day of elections for the EU’s parliament, with far-right parties eyeing gains at a pivotal time for the bloc.

Twenty-one of the bloc’s 27 countries, including heavy hitters France and Germany, were voting on the election’s biggest day to help shape the European Union’s direction over the next five years.

“In the current world situation, where everyone is trying to isolate each other, it’s important to keep standing up for peace and democracy,” said one voter in Berlin, Tanja Reith, 52.

Tens of millions of voters from Potsdam to Madrid were casting ballots on the final day of elections for the EU's parliament

The election comes as the continent is confronted with Russia’s war in Ukraine, global trade tensions marked by US-China rivalry, a climate emergency and a West that may soon have to adapt to a new Donald Trump presidency.

“Right now we are living in a scenario of uncertainty,” Jaime Bajo, a sports centre operator, said as he cast his vote in Madrid.

“I can understand that people feel fear and vote with a hard mindset,” said the 40-year-old, who predicted a “rise of extremist forces” in Europe.

In EU countries closest to Russia, like here in Poland, the spectre of Russia's threat loomed large

More than 360 million people were eligible to vote in the four-day election, although turnout in EU polls is historically low.

The bloc’s next parliament will help decide who runs the powerful European Commission, with German conservative Ursula von der Leyen – who cast her vote in her home country – vying for a second term.

- France and Germany in focus -

French President Emmanuel Macron's liberal Renaissance party is headed for an election drubbing

While centrist parties are predicted to keep most of the legislature’s 720 seats, polls suggest they will be weakened by a stronger far right pushing the bloc towards ultraconservatism.

Preliminary results are expected late Sunday.

European voters, hammered by a high cost of living and some fearing immigrants to be the source of social ills, are increasingly persuaded by populist messaging.

France will be the EU’s high-profile battleground for competing ideologies.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen voted in her northern town of Henin-Beaumont

With voting intentions above 30 percent, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) is predicted to handily beat President Emmanuel Macron’s liberal Renaissance party, polling around half that.

A smiling Le Pen voted in her northern French town of Henin-Beaumont, pausing to wave and accept flowers from supporters but making no comment to media.

In the French city of Lyon, 83-year-old voter Albert Coulaudon said Macron was getting “mixed up” in too many international issues such as the war in Ukraine.

“That scares me,” he told AFP.

In Germany, the election could deal a blow to Chancellor Olaf Scholz

But in southern Toulouse, Martine Dorian, 76, said: “If tomorrow Europe disappears, there will be no France left either.”

In Germany, the election could also deal a blow to Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who voted accompanied by his wife and stopped to pose for a picture with a young couple and a baby.

Leading the polls in Europe’s biggest economy are the opposition centre-right Christian Democrats, with a projected 30 percent of votes.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), on 14 percent, was seen either neck-and-neck or ahead of all three parties in Scholz’s ruling coalition: the SPD, the Greens and the liberal FDP.

In Italy, holding its second day of voting, the far-right ruling Brothers of Italy party of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni was expected to come out on top.

Meloni is being courted both by von der Leyen – who needs her backing for a second mandate – as well as Le Pen and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who are eyeing the formation of a far-right parliament supergroup.

Unlike Le Pen, however, Meloni aligns with the EU consensus on maintaining military and financial assistance to Ukraine.

- War worries -

In EU countries closest to Russia, the spectre of Russia’s threat loomed large.

“I want security, especially for the Baltic states. And greater support for Ukraine to end the war,” said Ieva Sterlinge, a 34-year-old doctor.

Likewise in Romania’s capital Bucharest, psychologist Teodora Maia said she cast her vote “on “the theme of war, which worries us all, and ecology”.

In Paty, a village outside Budapest, Hungarian voter Ferenc Hamori struck a different tone.

The 54-year-old said he wanted more EU leaders like Orban, who maintains close relations with President Vladimir Putin – even though he expected Orban to remain “outnumbered in Brussels”.

Outside his polling station, Orban framed the vote as a “pro-peace or pro-war election”.

Women wearing 'Bollenhut' pompon hats typical of the Black Forest region line up to vote in Gutach, southern Germany

The Hungarian leader – whose government takes on the rotating EU presidency from July – has stoked fears of the Ukraine war expanding to one between the West and Russia, blaming Brussels and NATO.

But there has been some backlash at home, where Orban faces a challenge from former government insider Peter Magyar, who staged mass rallies in the vote run-up.

Polling data compiled by Politico suggest the centre-right EPP will win 173 seats in the legislature, with the centre-left Socialists and Democrats on 143 and the centrist Renew Europe on 75.

The main far-right grouping, the European Conservatives and Reformists, in which Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party sits, was projected to win 76 seats.

The smaller Identity and Democracy grouping that includes Le Pen’s RN was predicted to get 67.